The power of the web is its ability to connect, or link, people with ideas and information. Inline links — links within a body of text — enhance usability and comprehension by enabling readers to find valuable information, made relevant by the surrounding content.
However, links are not made valuable by "click here." Without an editorial plan for using inline links appropriately, your greatest usability asset can become your worst usability problem.
Realize the potential of quality links: useful, usable, relevant and findable. Follow these tips to get the right clicks.
1. Make links descriptive.
Inline link text should clearly describe the destination page. While it’s preferable to use the title of the destination page, link text often requires edits to suit the sentence structure or to be made contextually relevant. Inline links should appear naturally within page copy and not disrupt editorial flow. Janice (Ginny) Redish hits it home in Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content that Works:
If [link text] isn’t meaningful, people who should click on it, may not. Result: frustrated potential readers who can’t find the information they want; frustrated authors whose work doesn’t get read. (p. 310)
Examples of non-descriptive inline link text include:
- "Click here"
- "Learn more"
None of these examples describe where the link goes or why it’s relevant. As usability evangelist Jakob Nielsen says, "Life is too short to click on an unknown."
2. Make links scannable.
On the web, just like everywhere else, readers often scan before they read.
Because links stand out within blocks of text, they are an important scanning element, along with headers, lists, captions and pull-quotes. To improve scannability, keep link text short and concise, using relevant keywords related to both the destination page as well as the surrounding content.
3. Use keywords in links for search.
The words you choose for link text are the only means for people to find your link through search engines, including internal searches. If your link leads to a valuable resource for readers, but no relevant keywords are associated with it, people won’t find it through search.
Search engines also use link text to understand the destination page. Descriptive, keyword-appropriate anchor text supports the ranking of the linked-to page, giving credibility to the related keywords used by the author. The book Audience, Relevance, and Search: Targeting Web Audiences with Relevant Content by James Mathewson, Frank Donatone and Cynthia Fishel addresses this point:
Google’s crawler looks at link text to determine the relevance of the link it refers to. If the link text contains prominent keywords that also occur in the referred page, the crawler will determine that the link is indeed relevant and will pass that information to Google’s algorithms for analysis. (p 120)
4. Use link text consistently.
Many sites use the same link more than once — especially with internal links. As such, it’s important to be consistent when describing repeated links. Otherwise, users will be confused by different references to the same content.
For example, linking "education abroad" and "study abroad" to the same page may cause users to question whether they’re reading the right information and what it is they should be looking for.
It’s appropriate to alter inline link text to suit the surrounding content, but the keywords and the way you describe links should be the same.
5. Avoid over-linking.
In my post on web writing guidelines for content contributors, I highlighted the importance of including valuable links. Indeed, inline links are important for offering contextually relevant information. However, as George Thompson mentioned in the post comments, over-linking is also a concern.
The purpose of using links is to enhance usability and comprehension, but too many links can hinder readability. As a general rule of thumb, I recommend people scale back links if they become a visual distraction. From a search engine optimization (SEO) perspective, it’s recommended to limit on-page links to 100 (including navigation links).
It’s also best not to duplicate links on a single page. With few exceptions, you should only link the first reference of a web page within the body of a page. Some exceptions might include referencing the site in a different context (demonstrating additional value) or when the page is very long, and it’s cumbersome for readers to locate the first reference.
6. Improve link usability with the title attribute.
The link title attribute is supplementary descriptive text included in the anchor link. The W3C describes the title attribute as "advisory information about the element for which it is set."
Using the title attribute allows you to elaborate on short, concise link text. For example, reference the full title of the destination page, author or website name. Or if you link a person’s name, use the title attribute to describe the destination, such as an email address or a Twitter page.
While the title attribute is a valuable asset, be careful not to make these common mistakes. Keep in mind:
- The title attribute should offer supplemental — not essential — information.
Don’t use the title attribute to make up for unclear link text. Link text should be able to stand on its own without the need for more detail.
- The title attribute enhances usability, not accessibility.
Don’t repeat link text with the title attribute if you don’t have valuable supplemental information to include. Simply duplicating link text in the title attribute adds no value and may actually hinder accessibility.
7. Don’t rely on inline links for navigation.
A common linking pitfall is to use inline links to make up for poor navigation. This problem arises when the site information architecture doesn’t adequately support the content, either due to poor planning or poor maintenance. If you find yourself relying on inline links to make content findable, you have a larger navigation problem that needs to be addressed.
Users (as well as search engines) rely on the site information architecture for navigation and for understanding the relationship of content. Adding inline links haphazardly to "fix" your navigation will cause many more problems than it will solve, impeding findability, usability and governance.
Other Link Style Considerations
These link style tips are important considerations, but there are many others that should be accounted for in your in-house editorial link style guide, including appropriate uses, punctuation, and the designation of file types.
Editorial guidelines also need to be developed in collaboration with visual style guidelines so that they support each other. Choice keywords and descriptive text won’t help if people can’t see the links to click.
For more on editorial style for inline links check out:
- The Yahoo! Style Guide
- Wikipedia: Manual of Style (linking)
- Writing effective link text by Webcredible
What editorial link style guidelines do you follow at your institution? If you don’t have guidelines, what link usability problems do you face?